Debating India

KASHI & MATHURA

Chariots Of Fire

Poornima Joshi

Monday 28 July 2003, by JOSHI*Poornima

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 28 juillet 2003.

After Ayodhya, the Sangh parivar stirs up the pot in the other two hotspots. As polls loom, will they succeed?

The frenzy has spread beyond Ayodhya. Those who helped the BJP ride to Raisina Hill on the debris of the Babri Masjid are threatening to unleash more communal tensions in what is an election year. And it’s not just structures they plan to demolish. The delicate relationship shared by all communities in the Shiva-Ganga territory of Kashi is now under pressure. The land worshipped for Krishnaleela-Mathura and Vrindavan-is slowly being sullied. The VHP and the Shiv Sena have been working overtime to stoke trouble in these holy cities.

For the record, there aren’t any temples in both the cities that need to be built.

They already exist. The "problem" are the adjoining mosques. The quaint old lanes that spread out from the ghats alongside the Ganga in Kashi are now encircled by iron barricades that separate the Gyanvapi mosque from the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Security personnel outnumber the faithful. The situation is similar in Mathura where entry to the temple is only after intensive security checks.

High fences hide the Idgah mosque compound.

The Kashi Vishwanath temple has existed alongside the Gyanvapi mosque for over two centuries. There was no Hindu claim over the mosque until December 1992. Now there are five legal claims in the courts. Post-Babri masjid, even a section of the mahants have been trying to lay claims to the mosques.

Mahant Som Nath Vyas, one of the claimants, says his family are descendants of the sage Ved Vyas. "There was an ancient idol of goddess Durga in the form of Shringar Gauri that was destroyed. My ancestors recreated some of it. The temple of Shringar Gauri is in the compound of what is now the mosque. We own the entire area and have now claimed it legally."

For a family that claims to "own" part of the property in the Kashi Vishwanath Gyanvapi mosque complex, oddly the legal claim was filed only in 1996. But Vyas explains it as a part of the "growing" Hindu consciousness. "Before the ’90s, there was no consciousness. Now we know that we can ask for what is legitimately ours. And we will. They have erected barricades all around the temple compound to appease the Muslims. But justice will be done some day," he says.

Questions have been raised as to why these claims were entertained despite the Places of Religious Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which clearly states that "the religious character of a place of worship existing on the 15th day of August, 1947, shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day". Asks Syed Mohammed Yaseen, joint secretary of the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid which manages the Gyanvapi mosque, "Apart from entertaining these baseless claims, the government is now deliberately appointing lawyers with clear rss links...they’ll hardly oppose the claims forcefully. I ask all concerned-where were these claimants before December 6, 1992? They are belligerent now because they think the government will not protect the Muslims and their places of worship."

Predictably, the argument for demolishing the Kashi and Mathura mosques is derived from "history". The current movement is about removing the mosques because the ’original’ temples allegedly existed in their present place.

In Kashi, the "proof" is the statue of a Nandi bull facing the mosque. In Mathura, the temple complex has a small room-supposed to house the exact place of Krishna’s birth. This room is aligned with the wall of the mosque, "evidence" that the mosque was erected on the birthplace of Lord Krishna.

Says Prof Irfan Habib of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU): "A temple was destroyed to build the mosque in Mathura. There are no doubts on that. But this whole issue of it being the exact place of Krishna’s birth is a new invention. In any case, where is all this leading to? Historical conflicts cannot be superimposed on the present.What’ll happen to Buddhist and Jain claims on several Hindu places of worship? The destruction of Jain and Buddhist shrines to build Hindu temples is as well documented as destruction of Hindu temples by Muslim invaders."

The BJP and its allies have already started "sensitisation programmes" in Kashi.

On June 18, the BJP district president declared at one such event that Gyanvapi would be "freed from Muslim clutches". Maulana Abdul Batil Nomani, Mufti-e-Benares and Imam of the Gyanvapi mosque, says all this is part of a well-coordinated effort to "terrorise Muslims".

"Why is it there was no problem in Kashi for the last three centuries? Why have people started raking up issues now that can shatter peace and harmony? I believe the secular fabric in Varanasi is strong enough to withstand these assaults, but I would still like to appeal to the district and state administrations to stop such inflammatory programmes in the city," says Maulana Nomani.

There are others who feel the whole issue is more politics than religion. "There was never any problem here. Our children used to play in the temple-mosque compound freely. The whole issue has been communalised and we see no solution," says Mahant Kulpati Tripathi, chief priest of Kashi Vishwanath temple till 1983 when the UP government took over its management. (He’s challenged this in the courts as well.)

Kapil Sharma, secretary, Shri Krishna-Janmasthan Seva Sansthan, which manages the Krishna temple in Mathura, echoes the sentiments. "There would be no problem here if we keep the politics of communalism out," he says. Sharma, however, is a lone voice. Senior VHP leader Vishnu Hari Dalmia is the managing trustee of this body and the movement for the "complete liberation of Krishna Janmasthan" is definitely on. Booklets elaborating on the Mughals’ role in the destruction of Hindu temples (the Krishna Janmasthan temple in particular) are being circulated. Skirmishes between the imam of the Idgah adjoining the temple and local managers of the trust are not uncommon.

The only dampener here, ironically, seems to be a fallout of the Ayodhya campaign-the Sangh’s inability to build a Ram mandir there even after all this time. As Sadhvi Ritambhara, who was at the forefront of the Ram temple movement, puts it, "Those who came to power because of Ayodhya are now sitting dumb in the government. It pains us to see the shameful situation in Kashi and Mathura. But a movement cannot be created unless everyone involved is sincere."

While she views the Sangh’s Kashi-Mathura agitation with scepticism, there are others who believe it’ll only grow. The VHP-Sena gameplan seems to be to wait and watch. Should Ayodhya strike a chord once again in the forthcoming assembly polls, then Kashi and Mathura could be raked up in a big way. Till then, it will be kept on sim.

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